Parent pouring cleaner concentrate into glass bottle that child is holding

Sanitize vs. disinfect vs. clean: What’s the difference?

Last Updated: July 12, 2021

How can you tell if you're using the right products to keep germs at bay? Learn about the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting from our team at Grove.

Like it or not, germs are literally everywhere. In fact, they're even in our soil, air, and water! Before you start to freak out, the good news is that not all germs are bad. Some germs are actually good for your body because they keep things in balance.

But what about the yucky, harmful germs that stay on the surfaces of everything you touch? Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep germs at bay.

If you're confused about the difference between sanitizing, disinfecting, and cleaning, you're definitely not alone! Learn everything you need to know about these terms and products from the experts at Grove to keep your things clean and your family safe.

First, what is cleaning?

Cleaning is defined by Merriam Webster as “to rid of dirt, impurities, or extraneous matter.” So, no matter if you’re wiping down a counter with water and soap, a natural cleaning wipe, or a disinfectant wipe, you’re cleaning.

To try and understand more of the basics of cleaning, as well as green cleaning, we talked to the experts at Grove to learn a little bit more.

Senior Director of Science and Formulation, Clement Choy, Ph.D. (also known as Clem) told us the following about cleaning products in general.

“Cleaning products is a very large category. In general, other than laundry detergents and manual or auto dishwashing detergents, most other products including general purpose and specialty cleansers form part of the Cleaning Products portfolios.

They can be room specific (bathroom kitchen, laundry room), fixture specific (toilet, shower bathtub), or surface specific (tile, marble, granite, wood).”

What is green cleaning?

Clem says “green cleaning is important as it encompasses the choice of products that focus on human safety and environmental safety as two key drivers, while minimizing any potential tradeoff on efficacy of the product.

As the technology and chemistry of green ingredients advance over time, the efficacy of green cleaning has improved significantly and in most instances it matches efficacy from conventional products.”

So most of the time, you actually don't need to spread harsh chemicals around the house to get a really deep-down clean. Green cleaning products utilize the oils, essences, and nontoxic chemicals of plants to effectively clean.

But, sometimes cleaning products that go above and beyond, i.e., natural and eco-friendly sanitizers and disinfectants, are necessary. So what’s the difference between these two and when should you use them?

What's the difference between sanitizers and disinfectants?

Blue spray bottle illustration

Even though sanitizers and disinfectants are sometimes used interchangeably, they're two totally different things. Here's a breakdown of the differences between the two.

Sanitizers lower the risk of spreading bacteria

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sanitizing reduces the number of germs on surfaces to a safer level. Sanitize things like dish sponges, toys, and other objects by either cleaning, disinfecting, or both.

Examples of sanitizing include using a mop and the right cleaner to reduce bacteria on your floors or running your dishwasher with a natural detergent to clean your dishes.

Disinfectants kill germs on surfaces

Through the use of chemicals, disinfecting kills germs on objects or surfaces. Disinfectants may not necessarily eliminate germs or help you clean surfaces, but they can reduce the risk of spreading bacteria or infection.

Examples of disinfectants are using disinfectant wipes or sprays, like these Seventh Generation versions, that are tested to kill a certain percentage of viruses and germs when used.

Disinfectants don’t clean surfaces, and most cleaners don’t disinfect.

Breaking down sanitizers vs. disinfectants


  • Are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Must be tested against specific bacteria and germs
  • Might require a specific amount of time to kill germs, which should be indicated on the product label
  • Reduce the germs and bacteria identified on the product label
  • Either kill or remove bacteria to a safe level, based on public health standards
  • Are often used in food service settings (but not always)


  • Are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Must be tested against specific bacteria and germs
  • Might require a specific amount of time to kill germs, which should be indicated on the product label
  • Kill a larger variety of microorganisms than sanitizers, including being effective against COVID-19
  • Might have a high alcohol content that can help break down cell proteins

When to sanitize vs. disinfect

Blue sink illustration

So, how do you know when it’s time to sanitize and when it’s time to disinfect? The short answer is that it really depends on what surfaces or objects you’re cleaning.

Here are a few examples of when it’s best to sanitize and when it’s best to disinfect.

Disinfect the following

Blue spray bottle illustration

High-touch areas

When you’re dealing with high-touch surfaces in your home, disinfectants can really come in handy. Use disinfectants to clean surfaces like:

  • Door and cabinet handles
  • Kitchen and bathroom sinks
  • Toilet handles

Sanitize the following

Scary fridge illustration

Kitchen counters or food prep surfaces

Even though it’s important to protect your kitchen counters against bacteria and germs, it’s not a good idea to use disinfectants on surfaces you use to prepare foods. Instead, stick with a natural sanitizer to prevent your food from being contaminated with chemical residue.

Blue handwashing illustration

Your hands

You might be tempted to clean your hands with the same disinfecting wipe you’ve used to clean other surfaces, but don’t. Hand sanitizer or simple hand soap was invented just for that.

Find out which is better: soap or sanitizer.

The best rule of thumb to follow is to always wipe off surfaces and then thoroughly wash your hands after to keep your skin protected.


Wiping down groceries

If you’re wiping down your groceries to protect against COVID-19, don’t use disinfectants or sanitizers because they could contaminate your food. Simply clean your groceries with water as soon as you bring them into your home. Then, thoroughly wash your hands.

Five tips to safely clean and disinfect

Keeping a healthy home is your ultimate goal, but how can you tell if you’re cleaning and disinfecting effectively and safely?

Follow these five tips to take the guesswork out of keeping your family safe.

1. Store all cleaning and disinfecting products in the containers they came in.

2. Never mix cleaners and disinfectants because combining certain chemicals can be dangerous.

3. Look at the product label to see if you should wear gloves or eye protection gear.

4. Always store cleaning and disinfecting products away from kids’ reach.

5. Read the back of the product label to make sure you’re using it correctly.

Mrs. Meyers cleaning products and Grove Co. cleaning caddy

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